Taming the Elephant
An Introduction to California's
Statehood and Constitutional Era
John F. Burns
The phrase “seeing the elephant” was frequently used during the California Gold Rush by western sojourners to describe their encounters with strange and alien situations or exotic and enlivening experiences—something as unique as actually seeing an elephant was at that time. The reality of seeing the elephant sometimes did not match the anticipation of the event. Thus, “seeing the elephant” became an apt metaphor for the Gold Rush, in which most people found more disappointments than riches. Although the phrase was generally applied to a gold-seeking adventure, the task of bringing discipline and order to the new state's politics and government in its chaotic infancy was a mammoth undertaking in its own right. California's extraordinary gold-rush-induced growth during a period of difficult transition from Mexican to American sovereignty was a challenge of elephant-like dimensions, as the essays in this book demonstrate. Those people involved in early California governance not only “saw the elephant, ” but they also had to attempt to corral it.
The extraordinary and rapid development of California's public sector after 1848 is a fascinating but largely obscure story. Driven by the rare occasion of immediate statehood and the subsequent necessity to quickly institute a broad range of civic activities, governmental development played a key role in the transformation of California from conquered place and unbridled frontier into a viable entity that could take its place alongside the other states of the Union. But how instrumental was that role in the making of California as we know it? Although the social, cultural, and economic ramifications of California's first thirty years as a state have been treated extensively in historical literature, no comparable body of work has yet emerged that thoroughly delves into the public arena. The state sesquicentennial anniversary prompted the preparation of several excellent new works on the Gold Rush and its